I'm not very good at this game called Life for I've not learned to see children crying without feeling pain.Javan

I picture some demanding uniformed old, guy applying strict standards to the design of every mailbox. Staring at the cheap plastic construction, I wonder whatever happened to that childish awe with which I held my family's metal box. "Approved by Postmaster General" - the military must have been more selective in my youth. Then, there was always the possibility of a surprise card or a letter or even a bright, colorful circular advertising this year's toy necessities. I can't help but imagine a malevolent and corrupt Postmaster General of the United States sitting in his office and approving each of the bills and notices of default that I anticipate in there today.

If they're behind that door, then I haven't touched them. If I haven't touched them, then I can plead ignorance. I can pretend that I haven't received any of the ever growing piles of bills. I know there is no legal basis for my position. Sometimes I grasp at the only straw I can find. Comfort comes from the blessing that mail is only delivered two days a week anymore. Mondays and Thursdays are dreadful days, but the rest of them can still be pleasant.

I open up the door, remove the top envelope, and shut it again quickly. A check for up to $42,000 made out to "Nathan Taylor or occupant". Yes! I need that. There's that pesky fine print on the back of the check – "In exchange for a car of equal or greater value at Thunder Motors. By endorsing this check you agree to payment of a six year promissory note of at least 14.99% interest, depending on prevailing rates."

Hmmm. I'm considering it. I wonder if I can buy the car, return it, and keep the loan. This is a better rate than my credit cards. I fold the envelope in half and place it in my pocket. It's really just a delaying tactic before I remove the next envelope.

The next envelope – "You may have already won." Probably not.

The next one is a notice from the community dictator – Field Marshall Gottlieb. This is the third notice of that my lawn is not as green as required by the property agreement. If it is not corrected in a month, then I am subject to a fine. I don't think I'll worry about it. Mine's the greenest lawn on the block.

Finally, I pull the door down, withdraw the next envelope. Roanoke Power & Light – damn, a loser. I consider putting it back and applying the five second rule, but I know that won't make it go away. Instead, I insert my finger under the flap and tear.

"We do it all for you," was stenciled at the top of the invoice. "Over thirty percent of your power now comes from environmentally friendly, wind sources at only a fifty percent increase in cost!"

Nobody asked me. I think I'd prefer the old and dirty coal power. A long and detailed dissertation explains how wind power normally costs up to four times more than other sources. I'm just not buying it. It's all a bunch of hot air. When I finally reach the costs, it is broken down into five pages with explanations: carbon credit offsets, power line access fees, generation fee, wind power assessment, nuclear clean up assessment, energy waste processing, and a fifty dollar "voluntary" fee for support of impoverished customers.

The total cost is over $1200, including that fee. My chest is tight. I'm having trouble breathing. Even though I think I can cross out the voluntary line item, I'm not sure where I'm going to find the money. There are at least a half-dozen other envelopes in the box. I close my eyes and lean against the mailbox to collect my breath. I may have to wait until next payday to burrow deeper into the pile. If the cable or cell phone bill arrived, I don't know how I'm going to buy food for the family.

I'm saved from consideration of more bills from a quiet voice next to my waist. It's a little boy or girl with sad demeanor and listless blue eyes. I think of him as a boy, but with his long, curly blonde hair, he could be either. His dirty face almost matches his dirty t-shirt and shorts. He tugs on my pants and whines, "Do you have something to eat?"

"Where are your parents?" I ask. He looks kind of heavy, like he isn't missing any meals. Then I realize how much he reminds me of the children in those African relief posters.

The kid shrugs and collapses on the street. He leans over and pulls out some tall grass. The grass and dirt are shoved into his mouth to quell the hunger. It's enough to drag me away from the mailbox. "Let's find out." I lift him up by the hand and walk him down the street. I try to direct him toward the grass to protect his bare feet, but he doesn't seem to care.

I don't know any of my neighbors. I vaguely remember a family somewhere across the street who possessed a child like this one. I knock on the first door. No answer. I look to see if the boy has any recognition. He doesn't, but he tugs a leaf off of one of the bushes. I brush it out of his hands – it could be poison. "What's your name?" He doesn't answer this question either, but he really wants that leaf.

I pull him to the next house. Someone, a lady, glances through the sidelight and ignores us. I wait a few minutes, knock again. Nothing.

I try the next house. Like the others, the lawn is overgrown, and already starting to die in the March heat. The front door is wide open. I knock on the door jamb and cry, "Hello!"

Nobody answers. I recoil from the smell and sound of buzzing flies - like something died in there. I ring the doorbell, but it doesn't work. "Hello," I cry again, louder.

Still no answer, but I'm guessing this is the place. I walk into the house and through the hallway. I try the light switch, but nothing happens. The child shows a little bit of life, flits to the kitchen, and climbs into one of the chairs. It must be well over a hundred degrees in here. The sun beats through the huge glass windows and bakes the kitchen.

A little dachshund lies next to an empty dog dish. His skin stretched tight and covered in maggots. That was the smell – he's been dead for awhile.

In case I didn't catch the hint before, the child whines, "I'm hungry," once again.

A couple of empty cereal boxes sit in disarray on the kitchen table. I check the refrigerator. "Ugnh." The rancid smell is worse than the dog. A half a carton of curdled milk rests on the top, dark shelf. I can barely keep the door open from the smell. There is a little bit of relish in a jar. I pull it out and place it on a plate for the child. He grabs it with his fingers and starts eating.

I want to scream, but I don't.

I take advantage of those few moments of quiet to search the bedrooms. It's worse than I expected. I find a woman in a nightshirt and panties writhing on a small mattress on the floor. She's shivering under three layers of blankets, but at least she's alive. I know her. I'm trying to remember her name; Kelly or something like that. She's mumbles, "Megory, please … please don't tell Dad that I broke his computer. Please."

"I won't," I say.

I feel her forehead with the back of my hand. She's burning up. I notice the little boy standing behind me expecting some more food. I wish I had some. I pull out my cell phone and call 911. They pick up on the fifth ring and say, "Please hold."

Hold? Muzak plays in the background. After about a few minutes wait the operator picks up. "How may I direct your call?"

"This is a medical emergency," I say in the headset.

"Do you need an ambulance?" she says.


"Please hold." The Muzak again. A different station; a little peppier than before. I feel the phone is reading my mind – interpreting my taste in music.

I'm not sure what the address is, so I walk out to the front porch. There is a slight breeze. It feels good to get out of the sauna and the smell. Finally, the Muzak stops and someone, this time a guy, answers. "What is the nature of your injury?"

"I don't know the specifics. I went to check on my neighbor and found her incoherent and feverish."

The operator asks other questions concerning the nature of her condition – was there any associated bruising, her body temperature, how long has she been in this condition, was it worsening or improving?

After a few minutes the operator offered, "As soon as you provide a credit card to hold your place, we can place you in line for the next available ambulance."

"When do you think that will be?" I ask. I still need to get back home to my family for the evening meal.

"It looks like … yeah it looks like we can make it on Saturday between noon and 6 pm."

"Saturday? Are you kidding? She could be dead by then."

"I'd be happy to offer you our Ambulance Plus service. Then we could probably squeeze you in sometime before midnight tonight. Or I can place you at the front of the waiting list with our new, Gold Ambulance Prime service."

"How much would that cost?" He knew it would be worth more than he could afford. He hoped Kelly had some credit cars around here somewhere.

"The deposit for the ambulance is $500. The final fee could be higher or lower depending on the miles and care provided in the ambulance. Signing up for the Ambulance Plus Service is $750, but we can get you ten percent off of your ambulance fee for the entire next year." He added that last part cheerfully, as if the Ambulance Plus Service is some great program.

"Look," I explain, "This isn't for me. I just found my neighbor like this and I was trying to be a Good Samaritan. I can't afford those fees – any of them."

"You guys make me laugh," the operator says. "It's funny how you're the Good Samaritan, but you expect us to pay for it."

"What do you mean?"

"The Good Samaritan paid the inn two silver pieces for their care. He did expect the inn to take care of the charges."

"Well I'm fresh out of silver pieces," I answer.

"No problem - we take plastic."

"No, thanks." I hung up on them without ordering an ambulance. Without telling my wife, I load Kelly in the back seat and her boy in the front. Johnson-Willis is the nearest hospital over ten miles each way. That's a lot of gas to burn, but well less than $500. I try the radio to quiet the child, but it doesn't work.

Late Thursday and the State Police are out in droves trying to earn their budget money. I stay more than ten miles per hour under the limit to keep safe from the patrol and save on gas. It didn't matter anyway. Within minutes I am pulled over to the flashing red lights. Maybe I have a tail light out or something. "I'm sorry officer what seems to be the problem?"

"You have a child in the passenger seat and he is not in the proper car seat. I can't believe how thoughtless you are."

"Well you see officer …" I start. But I already notice his eyes glazing over for the expected explanation. "I found his mother in distress and I'm driving them to the hospital. I don't have a car seat for the boy, because he is not my child. I couldn't leave him alone."

The police officer sighed and said, "Could I see your license, registration and proof of insurance?"

I hand him the paperwork and wait the fifteen or so minutes for him to verify the information. Kelly is mumbling in the back seat. Something about a boy she has a crush on. Finally, he walks up to the driver's side door and hands me the citations. Three hundred dollars in total, but "If you contact a lawyer, he could probably help keep the points off your license. Your insurance rates won't increase." I vaguely wonder if this ticket has something to do with my outdated stickers showing the last years of my donation to the Policemen's Benevolence Association.

"Thank you, officer." I take my medicine in the form of a fake smile. The ambulance is already starting to look a little cheaper. I can't tell Tammy about these fines.

A few minutes later I'm negotiating with the admissions clerk at the Emergency Room. The ER is over half full and it is not looking good. "Can't you see she's incredibly sick," I say.

"Of course," the clerk smiles cheerfully. "Just fill out these forms and we'll verify her insurance information so that we can admit her."

"I don't know her information. I don't even know her last name."

"Sir," she said professionally, but impatiently, "this is an absolute requirement. Everybody is required by law to purchase health insurance and carry the proper documentation. It is not our fault, if you don't have it."

I'm getting pretty angry at this point. "I have insurance, but this is my neighbor. She is not covered by my policy. I have no idea what insurance she carries. You can check with her after she recovers. That's all I got."

"Why don't you can file an appeal with the hospital admissions manager? I'm afraid she's left for the day. You can try back tomorrow." The clerk offered helpfully.

"No, I'm not going to do that," I say. I lift up Kelly's body and rest it gently on the clerk's desk – pushing aside her computer screen to make a little room. In her t-shirt and underwear, it's indecent and impersonal, but it's the best I got. Then I lifted the whining child and placed him on the table with his mother. "They're your problems now. I've done what I can."

I stormed out of the hospital doors. I pray that I did not just condemn those two to an early death.